OPINION | A Joe Biden victory would present a unique challenge for Jason Kenney

For as long as he’s been involved in politics, Kenney has been described as a skilled and savvy operator. Now, Albertans get to find out if that’s actually true.

To save the KXL pipeline, Kenney might need the help of his political nemesis: Justin Trudeau

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to cancel the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Few people in this country have more riding on a Donald Trump win than Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, says Max Fawcett. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.

Joe Biden is the ultimate political survivor, and with less than two months until the November presidential election, it's looking increasingly likely that he'll survive this strangest of political campaigns.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and the lessons of 2016 are still fresh in the minds of most pundits and political watchers. But with Biden maintaining a nearly double-digit lead in national polls, and significant leads in key swing states, it looks increasingly likely that the only way Donald Trump can win this election is by stealing it.

A Biden victory would be a welcome relief to the overwhelming majority of Canadians who oppose Trump's leadership, but Jason Kenney probably isn't one of them. After all, few people in this country have more riding on a Trump win than Kenney. 

Billions on the line

Back in March, Kenney announced his government had made a $1.5-billion investment in the Keystone XL pipeline, along with pledging an additional $6 billion in loan guarantees.

And while that investment was compromised by a July decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, one that upheld a lower court ruling that voided a key environmental permit the company building the pipeline needs to proceed, it's Joe Biden's pledge to cancel the presidential permit issued by Donald Trump that could turn it into a zero.

Ironically, if Kenney wants to save that investment, he will have to turn to his biggest political foe for help: Justin Trudeau. 

Trudeau, after all, has worked productively with Biden and his team in the past, and is on the verge of announcing a COVID economic recovery plan that will align with their environmental priorities. And for all the talk about Trudeau's apparent hostility toward the energy sector, he's been clear about his support for Keystone XL.

As such, there probably isn't anyone better positioned to help change Biden's mind on this issue than Trudeau. 

Biden has the leverage

One argument that Trudeau could bring to bear on that conversation is the fact that Biden can achieve far more for the climate by approving Keystone XL than burying it.

That's because, when it comes to the project and the Government of Alberta's desire to see it built, Biden has all the leverage in the world.

With a provincial election in 2023, and an economy that's taken one of the biggest hits in North America over the past six months, Kenney is desperate for a win. And unlike some of the more radical members of his party, Biden has built his political reputation around bipartisan compromises and efforts to work across the proverbial aisle. 

But as Biden knows better than almost anyone, compromise doesn't mean defeat — and a desperate negotiating partner is someone who can serve up a major victory for the other side.

What could that victory look like?

Biden could, for example, ask Canada to invest a portion of the tax revenues the project will generate into renewable energy like wind and solar.

He could require that oil flowing through the pipeline have a certain carbon intensity — one that's substantially lower than the average refined U.S. barrel, perhaps.

If he's really feeling ambitious, he could press Canada to join a continent-wide carbon pricing bloc — one whose terms would be favourable to the United States. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, left, meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his office on Parliament Hill in May 2019. According to Max Fawcett, if Kenney wants to save his Keystone XL investment, he will have to turn to his biggest political foe for help. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

American climate activists would recoil at the idea of using Keystone XL as a bargaining chip, and surely draw comparisons between it and the Dakota Access Pipeline, whose approval was also tossed out by an American court. But they would be wrong.

In Canada, thanks to both investments in technology and an industrial carbon tax that's been in place since 2007, the carbon intensity of oil production has been steadily declining for nearly a decade now. The Government of Canada has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, while the Government of Alberta has implemented a 100 megaton cap on oilsands emissions. 

Rather than blocking a pipeline from one of the few oil-producing countries in the world that's taking action on climate change, climate activists should be looking to accelerate and enhance those efforts.

Keystone XL gives them, and a Biden presidency, a golden opportunity to do just that.

A signal to the world

If he takes it, Biden could deliver material progress on the environment and the climate.

He could burnish his long standing reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker, restore more cordial relations between Canada and the United States, and send a signal to both Washington and capital cities around the world that America is prepared to take climate change seriously again — and willing to use its leverage in a constructive way.

Talk about making America great again. 

But that can only happen if Kenney recognizes that his longtime nemesis, Trudeau, would be a key ally in such a negotiation, and that a so-called "green recovery plan" would be a key chip on the Canadian side of the table.

That wasn't the case back in April, when Kenney was asked whether he would be willing to consider the idea of a Green New Deal, like the one proposed by progressive congressional Democrats.

"Our focus is on getting people back to work in Alberta, not pie-in-the-sky ideological schemes," Kenney told 660 News reporter Tom Ross. "We're not going to try to co-operate with the folks that are trying to shut down Canada's single-largest subsector."

That attitude will have to change fast if he wants the government's investment in Keystone XL to pay off.

All eyes will be on Kenney

You can be sure that potential Biden administration officials will be watching Kenney's response to the federal government's COVID recovery plan.

They'll be looking to see if he sides with those, like the Buffalo Project, who are already trying to depict it as the second coming of the National Energy Program, and have pledged to stand in its way.

Also watching, of course, will be the prime minister. And now, more than ever, Kenney needs his help. 

For as long as he's been involved in politics, Kenney has been described as a skilled and savvy operator. Now, Albertans get to find out if that's actually true.

If he's smart, he'll play his cards carefully here. That means pulling his punches against a target that he's long enjoyed sparring with, and finding ways to build confidence in Alberta's environmental credentials that go beyond bullying and boosterism.

Most importantly, it means learning from the experience of the prime minister he served under for so many years.

Stephen Harper made it easy for president Barack Obama to kill Keystone the first time. It's up to Kenney to make it much harder for a president Biden to do it this time around.

If he doesn't, it'll be Albertans who pay the price.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.


Max Fawcett is the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines. He worked in the Alberta government’s climate change office between 2017 and 2019.


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